Author Mike Russell
In the season of hope, reconciliation and good wishes for all mankind, 2012 started as the old year ended… fractious, tetchy and confrontational and this all took place while enjoying the gentle pastime of birdwatching!
Taking an opportunity while the sun shone over the New Year holiday, I popped down to Widewater at Shoreham to see a pair of snow buntings that had been entertaining birders for some weeks. These brightly coloured little birds breed in the arctic and tundra areas, with a few pairs even breeding in Scotland, and every now and again they come south and occasionally visit Sussex. Thanks to a local Sussex birder and all-round good bloke Bernie Forbes who put down seed for them, they have hung around quite happily for over a month.
Having found them where they were supposed to be, I was gradually joined by a few other birders and we were able to enjoy very close views of them. One of the assembled company was just about to take a photo when a guy came ambling along the beach with his dog, oblivious to the uniformed clad, armed to the teeth with cameras, binoculars and telescopes birders just a few yards away. Inevitably as the camera was about to click the dog nearly trod on the birds and off they went.
A grumpy "Thanks a lot mate" floated across the beach from one of the assembled birders followed by a returned "What's your problem?" The situation and language soon deteriorated but thankfully didn't come to blows. Looking at the Sussex Ornithological Society website later, it seems that this wasn't the only dog walker/birdwatcher confrontation that day and there were a number of postings on the site by birders bemoaning inconsiderate dog owners.
Now, being a birder myself it is obviously frustrating when the birds you are watching suddenly disappear through somebody else's actions but, taking, a step back, have we really got the right to get stroppy with them? Widewater is a very popular public place and, on a nice day, is full of dog walkers, cyclists, joggers, windsurfers, birdwatchers and general strollers. Many locals use it everyday and may not take kindly to being berated by a stranger who, once they have ticked off the bird, might never been seen again. It highlights an issue that Widewater, like many places in the south east exemplifies, lots of people with different interests competing for a diminishing public space.
It is an extraordinarily difficult situation to manage and the multiple use of Widewater has been going on for many years. These altercations between the birders and dog walkers do make it more difficult to get over how important the wildlife interest of this area is. By trying to engage with dog walkers, and others, you actually find that many, if not most, will be interested, even more so if you can let them look through your bins or telescope. It helps diffuse an annoying situation and might make people think about wildlife a bit more. That has definitely been my experience with the short-eared owls at Beeding Brooks, where many of the locals seem very proud of 'their' owls.
So, if you are a birder and the object of your interest is rapidly disappearing into the distance due to a canine interloper, take a deep breath, engage the owner in conversation, point out what you were looking at and you never know, you might set someone on the road to enlightenment.
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